TALLAHASSEE -- The organization tasked with recruiting a culturally diverse hodgepodge of tourists to Florida has discriminated against its own employees on the basis of race, religion and gender, according to several lawsuits and interviews with former staff.
Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism marketing arm, has settled some of the lawsuits, which involve accusations of racial, religious, gender and pregnancy discrimination. Minority employees who were fired or left Visit Florida voluntarily say they were mistreated, harassed or ostracized without cause by an organization that lacks diversity.
But the organization defended its record this week.
“Visit Florida is proud of its record of encouraging diversity at all levels of employment in our company,” Kathy Torian, a spokeswoman for the public-private partnership, said in a brief statement.
As most state agencies weathered drastic budget cuts in the last two years, Visit Florida saw its taxpayer funding more than double to $54 million. The taxpayer money represents the vast majority of Visit Florida’s $68 million cash budget for this year, although the organization justifies its “public-private” status with millions of dollars in free advertising from private companies. The organization did not say whether taxpayer funds were used to pay for discrimination settlements, some of which were covered by business insurance.
Lillian Spencer, Visit Florida’s former director of public relations, filed a lawsuit last year alleging she was discriminated against because she is black.
“She was mistreated, harassed, treated disrespectfully and condescendingly, and treated differently from all white employees,” the complaint reads. Spencer complained about the mistreatment, only to see her situation worsen, her lawsuit claims. After being told she did “not fit the organization,” Spencer was forced to resign from her $80,000-per-year post in 2009, she said.
Visit Florida denied the allegations, but in May settled the case out of court for $55,000.
Chief Marketing Officer Will Seccombe was one of the supervisors Spencer accused of discrimination. Seccombe denied the allegation and remains with the organization, which has no minorities among its five-person executive staff. Its 31-member board of directors is also overwhelmingly white, with only one black member and a few Hispanics.
In 2009, Lucina Del Toro filed a lawsuit claiming her bosses at Visit Florida discriminated against her both on ethnic and religious grounds. Del Toro, a Hispanic Jehovah’s Witness who was an information specialist at Visit Florida, said her supervisor denigrated her religion and told other colleagues to ignore her. When she complained to the human resources department, nothing was done, according to her complaint. She was fired from the $30,000 position in 2008.
Visit Florida initially called the claims “frivolous,” but settled the case out of court in 2010.
Visit Florida also settled a 2002 lawsuit filed by Devona Douglas, an administrative assistant who said she was fired when she became pregnant.
The organization defended its track record, saying the lawsuits from Spencer, Del Toro and Douglas were the only discrimination cases it has had to settle in 16 years.
Still, the allegations of discrimination are a black eye for an organization focused on marketing the Sunshine State to tourists from diverse backgrounds. Visit Florida executives travel to trade shows and mission trips across the world to promote Florida’s cultural and natural diversity.
Last year, about 86 million tourists came to Florida, with international locales like Brazil and Japan making up a growing portion of visitors.
Visit Florida has launched several initiatives to reach out to minority tourists in recent years, unveiling a Spanish-language campaign and providing small grants for cultural conferences.
But very few minorities have decision-making authority at the organization, where the executive and director-level staff is almost exclusively white. Virtually all of the 16 directors of Visit Florida’s voluntary board have been white, going back to 1996. The organization has 101 full-time employees.
Former employees and an attorney involved in one of the lawsuits have said the lack of diversity has affected both inter-office relations and the way taxpayer dollars have been spent in marketing the state. Dollars for marketing the state, they say, go disproportionately to predominantly white audiences.
Visit Florida denies those claims, and says it spends a considerable portion of its budget advertising to minority groups in Florida and abroad.
Torian said the organization was proud of its practice of “hiring of multicultural subcontractors who assist us with marketing the state to diverse consumers in the U.S. and in countries all around the world.”